Tuesday 27 July 2021

NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2021 #5: Reviews of 60 Seconds to Die 3 (UK 2021), A Killer Next Door (UK 2020), Boys from County Hell (Northern Ireland/Ireland 2020), Ripper Untold (UK 2021), Conjuring the Genie (UK 2020) and Wyvern Hill (UK 2020)

60 Seconds to Die 3 (UK 2021: Dir Various) Following on from the last two 60 Seconds to Die films, from 2017 and 2018 respectively, here comes number 3. The title pretty much fixes the ongoing concept of these things; 60 one minute (ish) movies guaranteed to twist your melon. The directors, chiefly but not exclusively UK based, bang out the little things at a furious rate; the framing device, claiming that they were sourced from a VHS tape found in an asylum in the USA, at least explains the digital drop out filter used on some of the shorts but not much else.The films range from the abstract to the pithy to the occasionally very strange, and a lot seem to date from 2018, and some earlier, suggesting an element of mopping up from previous volumes. 

Among the delights on display include: a carved pumpkin with a human head inside; a religious person strangled with her own crucifix; a couple who play a chess game to the death; a murdered Santa Claus; weird time loops; murderous dummies; dolls; killer ladies; public safety films; mad scientists; gore; boobs; killer clowns; monsters; the Grim Reaper; suicidal vampires; zombies; and cannibalism.

Prolific filmmakers Tony Newton and Sam Mason-Bell, the honchos from Trash Arts who are behind this, feature heavily as well as other UK filmmakers like Jason Impey and Martin Payne. Daniel Dikov contributes some oblique and disturbing short films. But two stand out from the crowd; the genuinely weird 'Brain in a Jar' by Martin Sonntag, and 'Eat Drink and Be Scared' by Reuben Rodriguez. It's a mixed bunch but the 60 second imposed limit generally encourages, rather than fetters creativity.

A Killer Next Door (UK 2020: Dir Andrew Jones) One of three pictures directed by Jones in 2020, but released in 2021, American actor William Meredith plays the real life character of killer John List, who murdered his entire family in 1971 in New Jersey. List disappeared and created a new identity. A Killer Next Door is the story of Stephanie (Harriet Rees), a ballet dancer who is housebound following a leg injury and who, while recuperating at home and watching the neighbours, comes to suspect that one of them, 'Bob', might be the relocated List, after seeing his picture in a magazine (which bizarrely turns out to be an issue of 1980s style mag 'The Face').  It emerges that List and Bob are the same, and that the killer has successfully reinvented himself and remarried a supposedly unsuspecting woman called Delores (Tess Wood, An English Haunting)

This is mostly more Jones-by-numbers filmmaking, although with some flickers of interest. As usual he wants us to believe that the events we're watching are set in America, despite the obviously UK locations and dodgy US accents offered up by the Brit cast hopefuls; a glacial pace and dull script, weighed down with exposition and weak attempts at characterisation are also par for the course. But individual performances are good, notably Meredith as the creepy List/'Bob' who cuts an odd figure (one scene has him mowing the lawn in a suit). Wood is effective as List's second wife, and Rees's tenacious Stephanie goes all Rear Window, at one point roping in a friend to break into List's empty house. There are some other nice touches; List's building of a model house, complete with people, is a shorthand for his controlling urges, and there's a good last reel reveal on a True Crime TV show.

But sadly much of this is a slog; many in the cast are very wooden in performance, and while the photography is rich and confident, production values clearly aren't. Extra verisimilitude points for a scene where a shot is reversed to make the steering wheel on a right hand drive car magically move to the left.

Boys From County Hell (Northern Ireland/Ireland 2020: Dir Chris Baugh) Baugh's Irish comedy horror clears up that thorny old question: where did Bram Stoker obtain the inspiration for his novel Dracula? In the Irish village of Six Mile Hill it seems, where he spent a little time and learned of the legend of the blood drinking nobleman Abhartach. Many years later three local boys, Eugene, William and SP, who spend most of their time jobless and hanging out in the village's pub called, appropriately enough, The Stoker, make a bit of extra money by showing tourists a cairn comprising a pile of rocks said to be the burial place of the village legend.

But Eugene's father Francie, who owns a construction company, is charged with levelling the area around the cairn to make way for a bypass. The demolition of the gravestones releases Abhartach, who unleashes his reign of terror.

Sort of. Boys From County Hell is equal parts small town social observance - Six Mile Hill is a village which offers few opportunities for its younger occupants while giving them no resources to leave - as much as it is fright flick, and the two themes don't always sit easily together, making the film feel rather fragmented. The fun here is in the director playing fast and loose with vampire mythology; clearly Stoker and all his literary and cinematic antecedents have got it wrong all these years when it comes to sunlight and methods of despatch, and Abhartach, when he finally appears (played by go to monster in a suit guy Robert Nairne), is quite impressive. 

Boys From County Hell is best when it's dealing with the frustrated and often sad lives of the villagers - grief of one form or another is common, and at one point William announces to Eugene that he's leaving to find his fortune in Australia, but without telling his practical girlfriend Claire (Louisa Harland), the only one of them to have a real job, serving behind the bar at The Stoker. It's an aspiration that he'll not achieve but which is realised in a bittersweet way at the end of the movie. The film has a lot of ideas, and it's impossible not to like it, but it left me feeling a bit dissatisfied.

Ripper Untold (UK 2021: Dir Steve Lawson) Despite the acres of text written on the subject of Jack the Ripper, it's a rather bold move for Lawson, in the second of his costume dramas released this year (see also this year's Bram Stoker's Van Helsing), to suggest that he's discovered information on the Whitechapel murders previously 'untold'.

In true micro-budget Lawson style, the director creates a 19th Century London of small rooms, dark courtyards and stock shots of London landmarks to create a sense of place, and in fairness makes a good job of it. We're offered a kind of alternate history of the Ripper story, with names changed, but the question of Jack's identity retained as the core of the dramatic interest.

We meet detective Edmund Rees (Phil Molloy) whose attempts to get one step ahead of a succession of murders of Whitechapel prostitutes is hampered by a newspaper reporter, Stubb (Chris Bell) who seems to be in receipt of classified information, even down to receiving letters from the Ripper himself.

The list of potentials for the murders is small (it's a Lawson production after all) but interesting: what about the alcoholic medical examiner Locque (an excellently sleazy turn from genre regular Jonathan Hansler) with an intimate knowledge of local brothels, domineering wife Elizabeth (Sylvia Robson) and wise cracking assistant Dodd (Jacob Anderton); or maybe the racist upper class Lowry (Barry Shannon) who maybe protests too much as President of the clean up brigade the 'Whitechapel Vigilance Committee'? And then there's local madam Miss Levine (Dawn Butler) whose husband, she describes cagily, died of 'misbehaviour'.

I won't reveal more, except that the identity of Jack is revealed, and may surprise you. Ripper Untold is all about the performances though, realised via a solid script, handsome production design and a fine score provided by Michael Vignola. The pace may be stately and the gore sparing, but this is a well delivered piece with some great attention to detail.

Conjuring the Genie aka Devil Djinn aka Evil Genie (UK 2021: Dir Scott Jeffrey) Jeffrey has a staggering 10 films as sole or co-director either released or to be made available this year. That is an amazing track record for a chap whose work gets stronger with each film. And like a lot of filmmakers working within the fantastic genre at the moment, Jeffrey is in thrall to the fright flicks of the 1980s and 1990s; this one's his most obviously influenced yet, drawing on the 1997 movie Wishmaster for its inspiration.

Glum Morgan (Megan Purvis) is returning to her journalism course at University following the death of her father. Her Professor suggests that she should take on a project to fire her up. Her researches take her to the subject of urban legends, and an online group called Legend Hunters. The head of this outfit organises a ritual summoning at a local church to which Morgan and her chums are invited. The result of the event is the conjuring up of a wishing demon, or Djinn. All seems ok for a while afterwards, but then the demon visits them, one by one, to offer them a wish; and being the trickster of legend, the results are disastrous.

To some extent the first half of the movie follows the pattern of Jeffreys', and many of his peers' other films. There's a lot of character set up and dialogue, but in this case it's important to the plot rather than just padding the movie out; to understand Morgan's friends' choices of wishes requires knowledge of why. But once the demon (played by the other go to monster in a suit guy Bao Tieu) starts plying his trade, there's a lot of fun in seeing the wishes go wrong; friend Gina (Barbara Dabson) for example wishes she were a successful model, and is turned into a creepy living doll as a result; and Lea (Sarah T. Cohen whose appearance in films like these is almost a pre-requisite) wishes herself to be a mum, for complex reasons integral to the story, is turned into a mummy instead.

Jeffreys lays on the vintage influences with gay abandon; the Genie/Djinn/Wishmaster is straight out of a Charles Band movie (courtesy of Midnight SFX who also provided the wolf heads for Charlie Steeds' A Werewolf in England); one later scene appears to take off 1987's The Monster Squad, and the whole thing is engulfed - but in a good way - by some classic 80s synth sounds by Kieran Jenkins. There's also some great bits of demon lore thrown in to the mix to spice up the plot. Conjuring the Genie may take a while to build up a head of steam but when it does it's exciting and impressive stuff.

Wyvern Hill (UK 2020: Dir Jonathan Zaurin) Zaurin's debut feature (his previous work has included shorts and a contribution to the 2020 anthology movie Gore Grind which doesn't yet appear to have seen the light of day) is an extraordinarily ambitious story combining a study of the perils of old age and what looks on the surface to be a nasty stalk and slash thriller.

Wyvern Hill opens with a quote about the power of memory and an unsettling pre-credits scene showing the gory activities of what the police think may be Hereford's first serial killer. In a change of tone we're introduced to Beth (an excellent performance from Pat Garrett), an older woman who is facing early onset dementia. In Beth's world her recently deceased husband Ken (Keith Temple) is still alive and she's slowly losing her grip on reality, while family friends Sue (Katy Dalton) and Jeff (Oliver Robert Russell) exploit her forgetfulness by dodging repaying a loan she made to them.

When her daughter Jess (Ellie Jeffreys) and partner Connor (Pete Bird) face eviction from their present home, Connor's boss (Paulo Raybould, The Snarling) offers them a large currently empty country house. It's big enough for the pair and Beth, who is struggling to live independently and can help them out financially in return. But when the three move in, the house begins to trigger dark memories in Jess's mother's mind. Does she know the place from her past? An enigmatic young woman appears to Beth, apparently a younger version of herself, and tells her of the origin of the Wyvern, a legendary Welsh dragon. Meanwhile, the killers close in on the farmhouse, putting the family in grave danger.

"Do you ever wonder where all the time went?" asks Beth at one point, underscoring her disassociation with the world around her. It becomes increasingly difficult to work out what's real and what is in Beth's head (the poster kind of gives away which it is) and if this sounds like a nastier take on Florian Zeller's 2020 movie The Father then you're not wide of the mark. But while that movie eventually resolved its fractured narrative, Zaurin isn't that kind to his audience; he's happy to let the strands remain untied, even as the final scenes of the movie suggest otherwise.

Wyvern Hill's near two hour running time, paced to coincide with Beth's failing mind, can be a tad patience testing, but is made up for in the film's overall boldness of vision and a stunning central performance from Garrett. The rest of the cast are serviceable but no more, which in this case is useful to foreground Beth's struggles with the world and her own concept of reality. It doesn't all work, but still remains impressive.

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